DeKalb school district out of the poorhouse

Showing further evidence of an economic turnaround in metro Atlanta, even the DeKalb County School District, once a fiscal basket case, is expected to have enough money next year to give all employees a pay raise.

The district was running an unprecedented, not to mention illegal, deficit just two years ago, but should be able to eliminate all teacher furlough days and still put a little something away in the savings account. The brightened prospects are due in part to recovering property tax revenue and savings from cutbacks on some costs, such as legal fees.

Superintendent Michael Thurmond, who took over the district last year in the midst of a financial and political crisis, described the turnaround as “to some extent, miraculous.” He said the 1 percent cost-of-living raise in his new budget, small though it may be, was a “down payment” to the district’s 12,147 employees who didn’t flee during the dark days.

During the 2011-12 school year, Georgia’s third largest district was reeling from a $14.5 million deficit and the public blowback it triggered. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools was railing at the money spent on law firms instead of classrooms, and threatening to revoke accreditation. Parents were complaining about classroom crowding, as ever fewer teachers staffed the schools.

Teachers have gone without pay raises for about a half dozen years..

“Anybody that could get a job in another county that didn’t have strong ties to DeKalb was leaving,” said David Schutten, president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators, the district’s main employee advocate group. By last year, the deficit was gone and the budget was at least balanced, though there was little money left over to do much for staff. Schutten said Thurmond’s plans to put more money in employee’s pockets in the 2014-15 budget is welcome news for the 6,163 teachers. “It’s a step in the right direction,” he said, adding that DeKalb has “caught up to what some of the other school systems have done.”

The proposed budget of about $800 million will eliminate four furlough days for all employees, leaving teachers with no furlough days and year-round employees with three to four. A furlough is a missed day of work without pay, so it’s essentially a pay cut. Since three of the four teacher furlough days are affecting class instruction this year (the fourth is a training day), the academic calendar will grow to the state minimum of 180 days under the proposal, and students will no longer be shorted three days, as the state has allowed under a hardship waiver.

DeKalb also has enough to spend $8 million to hire 100 new teachers, plus support staff. That would lower class sizes, though officials have not yet calculated how much. DeKalb has waivers from the state that allow it to exceed maximum student-teacher ratios by two students per class.

Another $5.3 million would go to new textbooks and rebinding of battered, old books. Student Aleyna Bratton-Stalworth was thrilled to hear about that. The junior at Redan High School had to share a U.S. History textbook with two other teenagers and could not take it home to study.

“The book condition is absolutely deplorable,” said Bratton-Stalworth, 17. “We have books that start at page 200.”

Despite all the new spending, DeKalb should still have enough left over to build up its general fund balance, or “rainy day” fund, to $20 million. That is less than a third of what it should be, but it’s better than nothing, or a negative number like before.

All this was outstanding news for school board members, especially with an election just two weeks away.

Thad Mayfield, who has four challengers on May 20, elicited knowing chuckles from his colleagues when he summed up Thurmond’s proposal in five words: “This is a beautiful budget,” he said.